Charlie Cook: Will Broadcasters Step Up?

CCook-onair-sm11HD radio has been on the radio landscape the last couple of weeks. It started when a spokesman for General Motors was misquoted about the future of AM/FM in the automobile dashboard.

The journalist that heard something not said, stated that the GM rep had predicted AM/FM was coming off the dashboard in the next year or two. This is not what was said and it started a firestorm about the future of the “radio” in cars. HD radio is being added to many dashboards. As are apps for Pandora, iHeartRadio and Spotify. Soon your dashboard is going to look like your iPad, which is okay with me as long as they continue to add apps and not eliminate choices used by 250,000,000 Americans every week.

Is HD the answer for AM/FM broadcasters? I agree the limited power output was a disadvantage but the increase to higher broadcast power levels for digital carriers will significantly increase the coverage in the auto and help with building penetration. I have not heard many current broadcasters complain about HD, but not too many have been vocal supporters. I would think if you have the ability to add stations to your reach, with drastically reduced costs, you would be on board.

As a consumer I like being offered more choices, without having to pay a subscription fee. I would be interested in hearing what is being offered. If my new car comes with HD factory installed I am excited about the additional choices. I can see why Sirius/XM, Pandora and Spotify will pooh-pooh HD radio. Unfortunately if I am a listener right now, I am also going to pooh-pooh HD radio. Many stations are simply rebroadcasting a co-owned AM signal, trying to expand that reach. I like this is some cases. I have a problem hearing WAJR-AM in my office. This is more about the hardware then the station, but now I have an HD radio in my office so I can listen to WAJR-AM as WVAQ-FM HD2. The coverage in my car will also be better in the evening after WAJR-AM changes their signal pattern.

Broadcasters should provide different programming on their HD channels if they are going to expect this programming to have an impact in the marketplace. If you’re a mainstream country music station on FM how about a Classic Country or Hot Country on your HD2 channel? Or how about programming a format that competes with your direct competitor in the market? Granted, today it would not get a tremendous amount of exposure but as HD shows up in automobiles, the reach will get bigger and bigger.

I know the point has been made that stations have cut back staff in recent times and there are not enough people to program another station in-house. Good point. I hope this does not stifle the growth of a new transmission source. Do you think the other sources are having an easy time at their business? I’m referring to the financial challenges of Pandora and Spotify. They haven’t given up. You think their technology is simple? Heck no. Once a strategy is designed for the HD channels, let’s find the people to execute it.

I hope this isn’t another example of a wasted opportunity. Automakers are being cooperative about installing HD as an option. Please do not respond to their interest in the equipment by failing to provide something that can generate an audience. I do not want radio to lose a place on the dashboard. Maybe not in 2013 but in 2014 and beyond. If someone in each market does not take the lead no one else will step up and this will become a missed opportunity of major proportions. Now this may be applicable to the larger markets only. I know the expense involved for smaller markets may be prohibitive. Not only the start-up costs but the fees stations pay year in and year out. Very likely those smaller market stations are not going to go out there as a leader. This could very well put an obstacle in the whole issue going forward.

That said, where you can do it, I see little downside if broadcasters are willing to step up and provide compelling programming. Of course that is also said of AM/FM.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MusicRow.)

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